In my research on old Shanghai nightlife I encountered many firsthand descriptions in memoirs of the era written by British, Americans, and other nationalities. Here is one interesting account that appears in the memoir of Shanghai Municipal Police officer named E. W. Peters. This book has been republished more recently (by Graham Earnshaw's Earnshaw Books), but I found it in the original publication so the page number may be different. The author contrasts the singsong girls to the cabaret hostesses and provides a rare account of a night in one of the earliest Chinese cabarets--the Black Cat on Tibet Road. The transactional nature of both cultures is highlighted in this account.
SHANGHAI POLICEMAN (pp. 51-53)
E. W. Peters
One of the interesting places to which I went in those early days was what is known as a Sing Song House. One evening I was out seeing the sights with a Chinese with whom I had become friendly. I had heard about these Sing Song Houses, and, being inquisitive, I suggested that he should take me to one. He smiled and took me to a decent-class Chinese hotel. We were conducted to a private room by a Chinese boy or servant, and we ordered beer and tea, the latter, of course, for my Chinese friend. He then spoke to the servant in Chinese, and in a few moments was brought a long strip of paper folded up like those views that one buys at the seaside—those that pull out like a concertina. On this were written in Chinese the names of the Chinese girls and their addresses (the Sing Song Houses).
My friend selected four of these, and after we had been drinking and talking for about a quarter of an hour, four girls arrived. Having seen quite a lot of the girls on the streets of Shanghai, I was given rather a shock when I saw these. They were very well dressed in native costume, certainly very pretty and some might say almost beautiful, and their mannerisms were delightfully attractive. My friend ordered food and drink for the party, and the girls joined us at table. He then quoted a few songs from a book he had with him, and the girls sang them in turn. I must confess that I could have done without this part of the entertainment. I cannot describe the tunes or the music now, although I know at least two Chinese' songs; but at that time it seemed horrible to me. We endured this agony for about an hour, and then decided to go, and the girls returned to their Sing Song House to await their next call.
I also went to a cabaret at about this time. I had heard so much of the night life of Shanghai, with its night clubs and cabarets, that I had become intrigued. So on Christmas Eve 1929 some of my friends and I set off for our first introduction to high life. We arrived at the famous Black Cat Cabaret at about half-past ten. I had never seen a place more brilliantly lighted. Everyone was making merry--British, Americans, Chinese and Russians--and on one side of the dance-floor sat the Russian dancing-girls.
We sat on the other side, and after dancing with a certain girl for three dances you paid her a dollar or the equivalent in dance tickets, which were bought from a young Russian woman selling them near the entrance.
I remember dancing with a very pretty Russian girl who told me all her, troubles in attractive broken English. (Most of these girls are gold-diggers, but I only found this out later by experience.) I felt so sorry for her that I invited her and her friend to our table, and when she told me that she liked to drink to forget, I ordered a bottle of champagne. Another soon followed, and my friend told me that I gave her another when she left our table. My pocket told me the same story next morning. I learned my lesson, and the next time I saw that girl I returned smile for smile, and there were no more invitations to my table.